AMERICAN TRAGEDY

WARNING: Proceed With Caution. Spiritual Speculation Ahead.

I found myself shaking hands with him. I got out of the car hastily, and after it drove away I wiped my hand on the side of my trousers. I felt dazed. He had focused a compelling personality upon me the way somebody might focus a big spotlight. He had that indefinable thing called presence, and he had it in large measure. I tried to superimpose the new image the upon the fellow I had met in Jack Omaha’s house, listlessly tying his tie after a session in Jack Omaha’s bed. That fellow’s anger had been pettish, slightly shrill. I could overlap my two images of the man. I wondered if my previous image had somehow been warped by the great blow on the back of my head when the explosion hurled me off my feet.

This man had been engaging, plausible, completely at ease. He made me feel as if it were very nice indeed to be taken into his confidence. There were dozens of things I wanted to ask him, but the chance was gone. The chance had driven away in a gleaming limousine, cool in the heat of the morning.

Yes, if he could project all that to a group, he could be elected. No sweat.

(John D. MacDonald, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, 1974…In the character of Travis McGee, offering the best description of Bill Clinton (aka “Frederick Van Harn”) anyone has managed, in fiction or elsewhere…note the date)

“By God, there’s nothing twisted about a man liking his pussy and going after it any danged place he can find it.”

(John D. MacDonald, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, 1974… In the character of Judge Jake Schermer, Bill Clinton’s (aka Frederick Van Harn’s) most succinct apologist, in fiction or elsewhere. Note the date.)

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Mark 8:36 (KJV)

Same for a woman.

The cruelest irony of Hillary Clinton’s final defeat is that she failed because she never managed to believe in the first lesson any meaningful definition of feminism should have taught her–the value of herself. The Quaker women who–driven and consoled by the Christian conscience, rather than nagged and annoyed by it in the manner of the modernist–assembled in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, to launch the women’s rights movement, could have warned her of the cost.

Had she heeded their lessons–and those of the Methodism in which she herself was raised–she might well have become President long since.

She had all the other qualifications…and had them “in large measure.”

Instead, she chose, by all accounts with the utmost care, a different path. She chose to hitch her wagon to a rising male star and to place complete trust in his ability to drag her to the top with him.

Imagine how she felt on the day she realized she had married not only the man she thought she married (and he really was that man who “could be elected”) but also the man described–perfectly–above. Imagine how she felt, wherever she was along the journey (and it may have been as late as when she was presented with the unassailable evidence of Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress), when the harsh reality became inescapable.

Imagine how she felt the day she finally realized There’s nothing he won’t do….

Imagine how she felt when she realized that the man she had wrapped all her dreams around deserved to be stung to death by fire ants, like Fred Van Harn, but that such things only happen in pulp novels, never in real life. That if her husband was the conscious-less horn dog she never quite believed he was, he was probably also the lip-biting rapist and dixie-fried racist gunrunner she never quite believed he was either. And that, even if he was none of those other things she could never again quite disbelieve, he was still a conscious-less horn dog who would go to any lengths to personally and politically humiliate her (exactly where were his legendary persuasion skills, when Hillary-Care was going down in flames?…the same place his famous “political judgment” was the day he waited for Loretta Lynch on a Phoenix tarmac?) on the biggest stages in the world.

Imagine how she felt the day she realized she had married a man who would stop at nothing to keep her from doing the one and only thing that made it worth marrying him in the first place.

I don’t mean becoming America’s first woman president, though there is that.

I mean letting her breathe. For a minute.

Imagine how she felt when she realized that Hillary Rodham had long since disappeared into Hillary Clinton who disappeared into Hillary Rodham Clinton who finally disappeared into “Hillary Clinton”–more brand than name–all for the purpose of serving evil’s endless banalities so that she could one day do the greater good her Methodist soul kept telling her would some day make it all worthwhile, only to find that, at the last possible moment, she had fallen one single grinding, humiliating, soul-killing inch short.

And that she had come short because, instead of believing in herself and marrying some small town businessman or college professor content to live in her shadow and perhaps even be in love with her, she had instead done it the old-fashioned, old-world, self-arranged political marriage way, and was now finally forced to accept the awfulness of her choice.

Now hold all that in mind and walk a mile in her shoes.

Imagine that the star you hitched yourself to finally revealed himself as the scum of the earth. This after you spent nearly half a century trying to convince yourself you could one day wipe the stains clean, only to discover that the very voters who so readily forgave him his sins abandoned you in large part because, consciously or otherwise, they managed to convince themselves you–the very first “you” that you should have held on to, the one who was never quite all the way hidden from view–should somehow have not only known better than to keep forgiving him, but than to marry him in the first place.

Imagine realizing that the old “well their sex life is their own business” trope really meant “well HIS sex life is HIS own business…but from you we expected better” all along.

Imagine that you had enough of the Methodist missionary spirit left in you to suspect they might be right.

Imagine you had long ago abandoned your own innate social conservatism for libertinism; your economic liberalism for feudalism; your wariness of radicalism for the cloak of radical chic that finally clung too far from your skin for any genuine radical to trust you, but not far enough for anyone else to believe you could any longer cast if off at will.

Not to mention trading your disdain for corruption for the pettiest, most transparent forms of influence peddling,

Imagine that, in losing one self after another, you had ended in a place where no deal was too shady, so long as it pulled you one step further up a ladder which would only be worth climbing the first rung if you made it all the way to the top.

Imagine discovering, here at the very last, that you were the toughest, smartest, best-positioned-by-history woman to achieve the thing you burned to achieve….and it turned out you had, at the very beginning, chosen the only path that would have led any place but the place you wanted to go.

Imagine that you had chosen the only path that could have led you here, where you have at last gained exactly what the Good Book said you would…

hillaryclinton1

…and where the only song left to sing, is this one.

 

THE INVISIBLE HAND (Curly Putman, R.I.P.)

curlyputman1

Amongst other things, I’ll remember 2016 as the year I grew weary of death. Maybe it’s just that time of life for me. Maybe for the country or something. Anyway…

All Claude “Curly” Putman, Jr. did with his life was write more signature songs for more iconic country singers than practically anyone else. I’m sure if I went around counting up, Willie Nelson or Harlan Howard or maybe Putman’s some time partner, Bobby Braddock, would be in the running. In any case the list is short and exalted.

Suffice it to say few non-performers ever had such monumental impact.

Just in case you ever think writing for a song mill isn’t “art” but merely craft or some such, you can ponder this list of the songs he wrote that helped define…

Porter Wagoner…

Tammy Wynette…

Charlie Rich…

Tanya Tucker…

George Jones…

Moe Bandy (and Janie Fricke)…

If you don’t want to listen to the clips, you can get the point by simply perusing the titles…all credited to a man who, when he died this week, left behind his wife of sixty years.

Great artist that he was, I wouldn’t be surprised that he counted that the finer achievement. But I’m glad he took the time to put in a word for the rest of us.

curlyputman2

DRILLING DOWN…BLUES AND ELVIS (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #58)

ACOUSTICBLUESVOL3

Blues isn’t really a narrow form. Sometimes it can seem that way, but any proper definition of blues singing would, for instance include not just the likes of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and Bessie Smith, but  Louis Armstrong, Hank and Lefty, Haggard and Jones, Ronnie Van Zant, Teddy Pendergrass and Marvin Gaye, Patty Loveless, Otis Redding, sixties’ era Charlie Rich, Percy Sledge, not to mention Jimmy Rodgers and Elvis. My own favorite unlikely blues LP is the soundtrack to Young Man With a Horn, a collaboration between Harry James and Doris Day which is as It’s-Always-3:00 A.M.-in-the-Dark-Night-of-the-Soul as any record you can name even if you go way further than I’m going here and drill down deeper than the top of your head.

That being said, any collection from the Bear Family titled The Roots of it All: Acoustic Blues is bound to be as thin as a hatpin stylistically. When the set runs to four 2-disc volumes that contain about twelve hours of music, you might think it would slog a bit.

I didn’t find it so.

I didn’t find it so, even though the set wasn’t quite what I thought I was getting when I picked it up cheap a while back. Having only perused the set list on the first two volumes to see what I was getting into, I assumed “the roots of it all” meant sticking to the narrow form’s heyday of the twenties through the mid-forties after which even the Delta moved to the city and electric guitars took center stage. Boy was I wrong.

Turned out the eight discs are dedicated to the decades stretching from the twenties to the nineties, with each decade treated in roughly equal measure.

And here’s the really amazing thing. Except for a small stretch at the end of disc seven, when Taj Mahal’s version of  “Fishing Blues” (not as warm or engaging as the Lovin’ Spoonful’s light-electric version from back in the sixties) ushers in a stretch of blues academia that isn’t entirely ushered out until Keb Mo’s “You Can Love Yourself” (a first cousin of Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party” speaking of unlikely blues) starts a strong closing run nine cuts later, it never, ever flags.

There are too many highlights to mention. If you like classic blues, you should just track down the sets and carve out some time and space to fully engage. I found the scariest stuff on Volume 3, which had versions of Muddy’s “Feel Like Going Home” and Skip James’ “Sickbed Blues” I hadn’t heard before plus a live version of John Lee Hooker’s “Tupelo” from his appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960, whence the “no electricity” rule was evidently still in full force!

So I was going to hook you up with that, at least, (and I will), but when I went looking, I also found this…

..and was reminded that, until Spike Lee and Chuck D came along, it was almost never the artists who said stupid stuff about Elvis.

And, in case you think the world was ever simple, here’s the version from 1960….

,…with Hooker being accompanied by Spike’s dad on acoustic bass.

That’s just in case you ever wondered whether Spike actually has good reason to know better.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Temptations Fill In the Blanks)

MEETTHETEMPTATIONS

At the end of his first published “Record Guide,” which came out in 1981 and was devoted to the seventies, Robert Christgau added a list of his “essential” albums of the fifties and sixties. The lists were heavy on comps because, in Christgau’s words, “outside of the fab five–Beatles-Dylan-Stones-Who-Redding–great albums-as-albums were rare before 1967.”

When I first read that in the early eighties, I already knew it was a little hidebound not to at least include the Beach Boys and the Byrds. In the decades since, I’ve realized I would also, for starters, add James Brown, the Impressions, Elvis, Charlie Rich, the Everly Brothers. Once you get to that number, the whole concept of pretending great albums were the province of a benighted few in rock’s “rock and roll” phase, is pretty silly. Christgau was both parroting and shaping conventional wisdom so he was hardly alone in his assessment–he just had an unusually high profile. Effectively parroting and shaping conventional wisdom, i.e., telling us what we want to hear, is maybe one of the ways we collectively decide who gets to set the standards. For better and worse–and I can definitely see it both ways–nobody was more suited to standard setting than the Dean.

So, with that for a long-term back drop, this week (or rather, since I’m a day late posting this, last week), I was able to add the Temptations.

I found their first five LPs in a package on Amazon for fifteen bucks and decided even my budget could accommodate that. I certainly thought I’d add a few stellar tracks to the storehouse and I needed long time favorite The Temptations Sing Smokey on CD anyway.

TEMPTSSINGSMOEY2

So far I’ve only listened to the first three albums in the set (the fourth and fifth are a live album and The Temptations In a Mellow Mood, which is one of Motown’s supper club LPs). I’m sure I’ll like the others, but three is enough to set me straight on the old “Motown doesn’t do albums” canard. Thirty-six original tracks plus two bonus cuts and there’s nothing resembling a weak or pedestrian side. I mean, not everything can be this…

or this (my own favorite Tempts, with the quiet man, Paul Williams, out front)…

But the rest doesn’t ever fall much below something as semi-obscure as this…

or completely obscure as this…

And, as fine as any individual tracks may be, what’s really remarkable is that all of this “product,” despite the Smokey LP being the only one that is anyway thematic or even more than a grab bag, coheres beautifully.

That shouldn’t be really surprising. It’s not like Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson (who wrote and/or produced most of the tracks on all three albums) were exactly devoid of the Vision Thing.

But what really struck me, listening to all three albums in succession, with about an equal mix of familiar-as-familiar-can-be and completely-new-to-me tracks, was how much some of the expansive vocal groups of the mid-sixties are still slighted as creative entities.

Let’s face it, even the critical love given the Beatles or Beach Boys or Byrds, is mostly rooted in their songwriting or some level of hip iconography.

But nothing was more important to rock’s exploding cultural and musical reach in the mid-sixties than the incredible expansion of the great vocal traditions, an expansion which repeatedly reached limits that have not been challenged in the five decades since. And it’s obvious on these three LPs that the Temptations, along with the Impressions, were changing and challenging the black gospel and doo wop traditions just as radically and thrillingly as the Beatles and Beach Boys were the pop tradition, the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas were the folk tradition and the Four Seasons were the bel canto and white doo wop traditions.

Sorry, but that’s as “creative” as anything that was happening on Highway 61 Revisited or Happy Jack.

Of course, the received point of singing this good is that it sounds so easy and natural it couldn’t possibly have anything like a thought process behind it. I mean, after all, you can’t even copyright it, can you?

Too bad. Because, believe me, every one of these sounds is built from years of sweat. And every one of them is something no one could ever steal.

TEMPTINTEMPTATINOS

 

MY MORE OR LESS FAVORITE ALBUMS BY ARTISTS WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN NOMINATED FOR THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME (Volume 2: The Seventies)

Okay, on with the Seventies…the decade with the mostest.

Some additional notes: I mostly avoided country artists for this series because I’m trying to keep things as simple as possible. Charlie Rich, who probably has a decent shot at the Rock Hall some day (I mean, they’ve nominated Conway Twitty, which is way more of a stretch), would have had four albums on the Sixties’ list if I’d been more inclusive…but then I would have started wondering about Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall (each of whom would make as much sense as Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson, who get mentioned a lot as potential Rock Hall nominees). Who knows where that might have led? I decided to keep the stopper in the bottle, so to speak. Maybe it will make for its own post some day–“country-pop-rock-confusion-salad-days” or something along those lines.  That said, the Seventies were even more of a strain and I did finally decide to include a Tanya Tucker album, for reasons explained below.

To that, I’ll just add that I regret not being able to include the New York Dolls’ first two LPs because the Nominating Committee had the good sense to put them on the ballot a time or two, thus rendering them ineligible here. That did it for the punk representatives. (X-Ray Spex just missed the cut because I like their titles better than I like their music, unfortunately, a common reaction for me…and, yes, I know calling the Dolls punk, instead of “pre” or “proto” or something more technically appropriate, will rub some the wrong way. Sorry, I can only call it how I hear it.)

So without further adieu:

Thunderclap Newman Hollywood Dream (1970)

FAVALBUMTNEWMAN

Note: One shot band who Pete Townshend famously discovered/produced etc.  and therefore British to the core. Don’t let that fool you. It’s also the soundtrack of Ross MacDonald’s Los Angeles, just as it reached the final stage. When it comes to both the form and spirit of decline, we always seem to get there first on the page and the Brits always seem to get there first on record.

Pick to Click: “Something In the Air” (going obvious for once because the times demand it…theirs and ours)

Lulu: New Routes (1970) and Melody Fair (1970)

FAVALBUMSLULU1

FAVALBUMSLULU2

Note: Jerry Wexler tried several times to recreate the artistic and (at least relative) commercial success of Dusty Springfield’s 1969 Dusty In Memphis. He kept coming close. Given how epochal Dusty In Memphis is, that’s saying something. These albums are each genuinely great on their own and they gain force in tandem (along with a third album’s worth Lulu recorded around the same time) on the CD set I wrote about a length here.

The quote at the top of that piece still cuts.

Picks to click: “Feelin’ Alright” (New Routes) and “After the Feeling is Gone” (Melody Fair)

Swamp Dogg Total Destruction to Your Mind (1970)

FAVALBUMSSWAMPDOGG

Note: A straight soul version of Revelations. “Did concrete cover the land? And what was a rock and roll band?” No, really.

Pick to Click: “The World Beyond”

The Stylistics The Stylistics ()1971) and Round 2 (1972)

FAVALBUMSSTYLISTICS1

FAVALBUMSSTYLISTICS2

Note: A Philly soul super-group who eventually found their way to Thom Bell and major stardom. Coming across their Best of in late-seventies America was like hearing the apostles with the Vandals at the gates. I didn’t hear these albums until the CD reissue boom of the nineties, by which time they sounded more like prophets without honor. No act, Beatles included, has ever released two better albums out of the gate.

Picks to click: “You’re a Big Girl Now” (The Stylistics) “It’s Too Late” (Round 2 and fair competition for the best Carole King cover ever, up to and including “One Fine Day,” “The Locomotion” and maybe even “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”)

Helen Reddy I Don’t Know How to Love Him (1971)

favalbumsHELENREDDY

Note: This contains the now mostly forgotten version of “I Am Woman,” which doesn’t sound as great here as it did in the more polished hit version that has taken a forty-something-year pounding as a definitive version of seventies’ era have-a-nice-day excrement, as agreed upon by everyone from Greil Marcus to Bill O’Reilly. I’d say the length and intensity of that pounding is the truest measure of how much it still frightens people. Reddy was probably the only person who could have mainstreamed feminism for the same reason Chris Evert was probably the only person who could have mainstreamed (non-Olympic) women’s sports…nothing mitigates fear quite like the assurance of normality. This isn’t actually her strongest album (the follow-up Helen Reddy is freer and further ranging and “Tulsa Turnaround” shouldn’t be missed). But if “I Am Woman” had never existed, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” would have still had everybody quaking if they had only stopped to listen (and gotten Yvonne Elliman’s fine but straight-from-Broadway version out of their heads). “I couldn’t cope…I just couldn’t cope” is as fine a line-reading as exists on record and I’ll just add that when the girls in my junior high came in with reports of their NASA dads stalking out of the TV room or throwing shoes at the set, you always knew who had been on the night before.

Pick to Click: “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”

Jackie DeShannon Jackie

FAVALBUMDESHANNON

Note: Jerry Wexler tried several times….Rinse and repeat. Except this time, instead of taking a British girl south, he took an actual southerner who was every bit the singer Dusty and Lulu were but also a Hall of Fame level songwriter. Still didn’t get a hit out of it and, in fact, this was where the trying basically ended. In its original vinyl version, which is what I’m including here, it was merely one of the best albums of its era and recognized as such by virtually no one. In the epic extended version released on CD a while back (with another album’s worth of material added) its an era-summing epic. I keep meaning to write about it at length but, for now, I’ll just say that the original LP is still a keeper.

Pick to Click: “Full Time Woman”

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band

FAVALBUMMANFREDMANN

Note: Depending on how you count, the 3rd or 4th ace band led by keyboardist Manfred Mann. This one started out sounding like an attempt to carry on in the tradition of the Band or Fairport Convention (right down to the ace Dylan covers the Mann’s bands had been assaying since before anybody heard of the Fairports and the Band were still Dylan’s touring band) at the moment those two entities were disintegrating…and even they didn’t do it any better.

Pick to Click: “Part Time Man”

Big Star #1 Record (1972) and Radio City (1974)

FAVALBUMSBIGSTAR1RECORD

FAVALBUMBIGSTAR1

Note: In the CD era these have been released as an incomparable two-fer and that’s the way I’ve become used to listening to them. In their day they charted a future that eventually came and even charted (see R.E.M.) without ever sounding quite as good or quite as ready for any punch the world could possibly throw. I wrote about Big Star and the music on these albums (plus a few other things) here.

Picks to Click: “Feel” (#1 Record) and “You Get What You Deserve” (Radio City)

Dobie Gray Drift Away (1973)

FAVALBUMSDOBIEGRAY

Note: Hey, that cover is almost weird enough to grace a Swamp Dogg LP. But the sound is all ache. The sound of an open-hearted black man in Nashville, refusing the believe his talent won’t triumph. For one brief shining moment, it did…everywhere except Nashville.

Pick to Click: “Drift Away” (Because no matter how obvious it is, or how great the rest of the LP is, if “Drift Away” is an option, it’s always the pick)

Raspberries Starting Over (1974)

FAVALBUMSRASPBERIESSOVER

Note: Nice consensus pick for the era’s Great Lost Album but just because it’s Conventional Wisdom doesn’t mean it’s not so. My personal pick would actually be their 1976 Best of, which I can’t include because it’s a comp, even though it’s inevitably a little stronger than this cut-for-cut and also one of the greatest concept albums ever released…alas, never on CD. Of course, if I had picked this one up in 1980, that time I saw it, sealed, for a buck-ninety-eight, in a bargain bin at a T,G and Y in DeFuniak Springs, instead of on scratchy vinyl, for fifteen bucks, in a used record store, twenty-five years later (never having set eyes on it in between)? Well who knows? But in any case it is plenty good enough to belong here. And, of course, they broke up immediately afterwards. Didn’t the title clue you?

Pick to Click: “Starting Over” (Because, of course, it’s the last song on their last pre-breakup LP) Bonus Pick: “Overnight Sensation” (Eric Carmen, from 2005, sounding like time had stood still for thirty years, waiting for him)

Toots and the Maytals Funky Kingston (1975)

favalbumsFUNKYKINGSTON

Note: This is a bit of a cheat. It’s a sort-of comp since it combines the key cuts from a couple of earlier albums that weren’t much distributed outside of Jamaica. But it coheres plenty and these guys are not much mentioned for Hall of Fame status. They should be. Because this is jaw-dropping and, if anything, their earlier stuff, which has been released on various comps, was even better.

Pick to Click: “Country Road” although, really on the “Drift Away” principle established above, I really must add this.

Boston (1976)

FAVALBUMBOSTON1

Note: In theory, every big faceless corporate concept I’ve ever distrusted, in one nice, convenient, easy-to-hate package. Just look at that cover! But that’s just theory. In reality, it’s the greatest D.I.Y. record ever made. You want contrived, try the Sex Pistols. This is hard rock out of Beethoven, the James Gang and a Boston basement. If theories held, it should have sounded the way last week’s fish smells. For some, it did and does. For me, it rings true. Maybe the only album that’s sold twenty-five millions copies and is still underrated. Baby, that was rock and roll. Like it or not. And, I might just mention, a fine sequel to Starting Over.

Pick to Click: “Hitch a Ride”

The Persuasions Chirpin’ (1977)

FAVALBUMSPERSUASIONS

Note: Black men, singing a cappella in 1977, about a past that never quite was and a future that had no chance of ever arriving. I had some additional thoughts here. To which I’ll only add, don’t go looking for better. There’s no such thing.

Pick to Click: “To Be Loved”

Boston Don’t Look Back (1978)

favalbumsboston2

Note: Wait. They did it again? Exactly the same? That must surely make this the funniest “up yours” title ever….the end draws nigh.

Pick to Click: “A Man I’ll Never Be”

Tanya Tucker Tear Me Apart (1979)

favalbumstearmeapart

Note: The end of Tanya’s attempts to go mainstream. I can only guess she missed because, finally, she had too much rock and country in her voice and not quite enough pop. I’m making an exception to the country exclusion, though, because this really is a rock and roll album (right down to copping Suzi Quatro’s producers and redeeming “San Francisco” of all things). So much so that it was the only album she released over a thirty-year stretch which didn’t produce a country hit. Plus she had already made the cover of Rolling Stone as a country singer, anyway, and did it when country really wasn’t cool, assuming it ever actually was in those sort of places. All of which makes her as likely and credible a candidate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as Willie Nelson in my book. Oh yeah, this was also a fine album. And I wouldn’t pick anybody else, or any other song, to close down the Seventies’ portion of our program. (Suggestion: Don’t play this when you have a parent in a nursing home. Just wait until they pass. And then wait a while longer. Trust me on this.)

Pick to Click: “Shady Streets”

Third and final installment on the Eighties to follow…Don’t worry, if I haven’t lost you by now, I’m sure I’ll lose you then!

JUST COUNTRY ENOUGH (Billy Sherrill, R.I.P.)

BILLYSHERRILL1

(Tammy Wynette, George Jones and Billy Sherrill)

There used to be what was thought of as a more or less eternal war in Nashville between “too real” and “too pop.” The war still sort of goes on but, unfortunately, it’s a little hollow now because, like everything else in this generation’s popular music the now eternal outcome has been decided elsewhere by people who don’t really feel a need to keep artists or audiences informed. You can turn on the radio and punch buttons straight across the dial if you’re interested in the results.

When the war was hottest and heaviest, the single figure most likely to produce hits, controversy or a way ahead was writer/producer Billy Sherrill. He had a broad-based, deeply nuanced formula. Nobody could have stayed at the top of the heap as long as he did–or straddled both sides of such a thorny fence as spectacularly well–if it had been simple.

But it’s probably fair to say it at least had simple elements. At it’s very best those elements tended to be the same: the lushest arrangements permissible (sometimes built up and then stripped back down, even in the same song…like I said, it wasn’t really simple even when it sounded the simplest) backing the very hardest country voices.

You know. Tammy Wynette, George Jones, David Allan Coe, Johnny Paycheck, Tanya Tucker.

Like that.

Even a cursory listing of his most famous productions (not a few of which he also wrote), reads like at least half of the short list people generally start with when they start writing or talking about “the perfect country record.”

To Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which gets the most run, you could add Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It,” Tucker’s “Delta Dawn,” David Houston’s “Almost Persuaded,” and maybe fifty others that would spring more readily to mind if those didn’t happen to already exist.

They all exist in the iconic form they now have not just because of Sherrill’s extraordinary skills as one of the dozen or so greatest record men of the twentieth century, but because he was a genuine visionary in a town and an industry that do not exactly encourage visions. If he was slagged for musical and (sometimes) political conservatism in what’s supposed to be the industry’s most conservative town, well, he didn’t let it bother him too much. And if being “conservative” was what it took to make the records he made–as opposed to what the New Conservatism, which prides itself on being anything but, now produces–then I’ll take a dose of it right now and go down smiling.

The obits are ubiquitous on line and I’m sure his most famous records (which would be too numerous to list in full anyway) will get plenty of play. So I’ll stick to a few of my own favorites, which maybe strike even deeper because they won’t be in everyone’s ear today and because, some time or other, they came for me in my own little personal shadow and made things a little brighter.

Owe you brother. More than I can say.

Maybe even as much as the other misfits you somehow made fit.

 

MY FAVORITE SINATRA….NANCY IN ‘69 (Vocalist of the Month for 4/15: Nancy Sinatra)

THE BELIEVER MAGAZINE: It seems like the middle of the ’60s marked a distinct change in the demographics, subculture, and kinds of restaurants and clubs that filled Hollywood from what had been the popular landmarks during your father’s generation–like Ciro’s, the Trocadero, etc. Was there a reason that you weren’t part of this transformation? Was that your label’s decision?

NS: No, Reprise was very much into that scene. They had a lot of great artists join the label at that point. But I think most of the executives at the label looked at me as Frank’s daughter. They didn’t look at me as a fashion icon or an influence on the women’s movement or anything like that. The just tolerated the existence of me. And I know the result of it made me not welcome by my musical peers. I never felt I was part of [a scene], and they never accepted my music or me.

(Source: The Believer, July/August 2014)

FRANKANDNANCY

This month marks the centenary of Frank Sinatra’s birth and there have been plenty of celebratory markers, including Sinatra being named “Voice of the Century” by London’s Daily Mail and a new, much-lauded documentary on HBO. As in much of the past twenty years or so, deserved acknowledgment of Frank’s genius has come from across the political spectrum (you can get a sampling from conservative critic Terry Teachout (Commentary, The Wall Street Journalhere and The Daily Beast‘s Allen Barra here).

Me, I appreciate Frank a lot, both as a singer and an actor and, of course, he’s the greater artist and all that. No one’s going to put his daughter up for Voice of the Century.

But the last measure for a fan of singers is the listening they do and, when it comes down to it, I’ve always listened more to Nancy.

The famous Nancy, of course…the Nancy of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” and “Sugartown” and those strange, cool duets with Lee Hazlewood.

And the not-quite-so-well-known Nancy, too (I’m especially fond of her “Hard Hearted Hannah”…aka “the vamp of Sa-van-nah, G-A!”)

More than that, though, I’ve listened to this Nancy…the Nancy who is neither terribly hip or, outside of her hardcore fans, terribly well-known. The Nancy of Nancy:

NANCYALBUM

Along about now, I should make two things clear.

First, I don’t believe in “kitsch” or “camp” values. I don’t think art should be a shield, or an inside joke or a snigger. It works on you or it doesn’t. It gets around your defenses…Or it doesn’t.

Nancy’s music was hit and miss for me, to be sure, but I never thought “ah well, I really like that, but I better put it through the hipster strainer before I confess it to anybody.”

What I might or might not confess to others in any given moment has always depended on a number of factors (albeit fewer and fewer as I get older and older). But what I believe has always depended on how the object of belief struck me.

And only me.

I thought Nancy Sinatra was great back in the late seventies, the first time I heard “Sugartown” on a small-town radio station in the Florida Panhandle (’bout sixty miles from Tall-a-has-see, where it very definitely “also rains”).

The station played a very odd mix of current pop and country hits and threw in an oldie every hour or so that was always announced by a warm, friendly male voice that I later learned was computer-generated and named “Bruce.” (The oldies in question, incidentally, were a constant rotation of about a dozen songs–the four I remember are “Sugartown,” Lulu’s “Oh Me, Oh My” and Tanya Tucker’s “Lizzie and the Rainman” and Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er,” all of which are still playing in my head no matter how long it’s been since I last heard them.)

I’ve thought she was great–no fooling or excusing–ever since.

Having said all that, I freely confess I bought the album above for the cover.

Three bucks at a record show? What, are you kidding? So what if it didn’t have any hits on it (all I knew of her at the moment) and so what if the idea of Nancy doing “Light My Fire” or “Big Boss Man” seemed a bit of a stretch even for a fan like me?

Didn’t matter. I wanted that record cover in my house!

Mind you, I didn’t even know about Nancy’s killer album covers back then (circa 1990 or so–long before she had registered any significant reverse-hip-cred from the likes of Morrissey, or her definitive version of “Bang, Bang” had provided the only piece of music ever played in a Quentin Tarantino film that promised something he couldn’t possibly either deliver or successfully take a crap on). I don’t think I had ever even seen this one. But I was buying that record of hers, even if I never played it more than once or ever bought another one.

To be honest I didn’t have terribly high expectations when I got it home and put it on the record player. See, I didn’t have camp values then, either. But I had the mistaken impression that certain things could never transcend camp. They were bound to be that, or they were bound to be nothing.

Like Nancy Sinatra doing “Big, Boss Man” for instance.

Boy was I wrong.

“Big Boss Man” was at the top of side two (back when you had to flip the darn things in the middle!), and I knew I was wrong long before then.

Side one started with “God Knows I Love You,” which is one of those old-fashioned romancers that, if it ever took place anywhere, did so as far from Hollywood High as anybody could get, and wasn’t likely to grab me less with each ensuing year of confirmed bachelorhood.

I was suspicious of it, to be sure. It was, like a lot of Nancy’s music, familiar, without being quite like anything else. There wasn’t anything to orient it to–to help me figure out whether it was actually good. It was dangerous because it made me want to develop a camp impulse just so I’d have somewhere to put it.

Nothing could make me more suspicious than that. Not then and, frankly, not now.

So, as my own brand of defense, I figured “well, it’s definitely got something” I wasn’t sure what, except that it probably drove the staff at Rolling Stone deeper into drugs and delusion.

That and the cover surely made it worth three bucks!

I might have been safe, then. That might have sufficed, if only the “one cut’s bound to be pretty good at least” syndrome had kicked in and the rest of the album had left me be.

Except…

On the very next track she plain-songed “Memories” into a completely different take on Elvis’ heavy (and gorgeous if, for once, actually a tad louche in the manner some critics were always pretending was his norm) sentiment.

That got me listening closer, thinking…well-l-l-l….

Well what?

Well, I didn’t think too long before I realized I was smack dab in the middle of my first great “easy listening for the midnight hours” album, and it was all the greater because it so obviously wasn’t easy at all.

How “not easy” has been made clearer by the decades since, when Nancy has been joined by Doris Day and Harry James’ soundtrack for Young Man With a Horn, Sam Cooke’s Night Beat, Charlie Rich’s Set Me Free, Louis Armstrong’s Favorites, and the odd item from Julie London as the handful of albums that fill that very particular smoky space.

I don’t mean those are the only albums I play after midnight or even the ones I play most. Just that those are the ones that suit a particular mood and, if you study those names, you can see it’s both the highest company a certain kind of singer can keep and the company is hardly rooted in genre or style, unless “Midnight Blues For One” really is its own style.

I don’t know what possessed Nancy Sinatra to make such an album in 1969, immediately upon her split with her hit-making producer Lee Hazlewood. Whatever it was, it wasn’t born of any impulse to follow the fashion. Torch albums by top-40 gals weren’t exactly the going thing in the Age of Aquarius, even if the top-40 gal was Frank Sinatra’s daughter.

So it was an act–or series of acts–that required some kind of artistic courage. And there’s a certain style of courage that always shines through, provided a proper measure of talent is also on hand. Courage is never enough by itself.

So, at the moment when her eternally hip father was, frankly, embarrassing himself trying to keep up with the times, Nancy reached straight across the broadest possible Pop spectrum and made that reach seem natural–ran the songs I already mentioned into the quiet seduction of “Just Bein’ Plain Old Me,” and a country-politan arrangement of “Here We Go Again” and a tender rendition of “My Dad (My Pa)” that provided a perfect setup for her to torch “Light My Fire” to within an inch of its life.

In other words, made the kind of effects her Dad was trying–and failing–to pull off at the time seem easy as pie.

And, like I say, that was all before she got to this…

…at which point I was a complete goner. ready to track down every Nancy Sinatra album in existence (which, given when and where I was getting ready to do this was, shall we say, a lot harder than it is now…and didn’t come close to landing me any more three-dollar deals either). I mean, plain-songing “Memories” was one thing and torching “Light My Fire” was another thing but plain-song-torching a number that already existed in truly great versions by Jimmy Reed, Elvis, Charlie Rich, Bobbie Gentry and maybe fifty or sixty other folks and making them all sound like they had missed the point…well…that was some kind of perverse genius and if I wasn’t quite past the point of caring who knew it then, I’m way past the point of caring who knows it now.

Frank found his stride again soon enough (turned out retiring, officially or unofficially, and coming back, officially or unofficially depending on how you left it, was the Career Move of the Century–it beat dying by miles and these days, you practically can’t find a big name in Show Biz who hasn’t tried it, up to and including Johnny Rotten.) Nancy, the meanwhile, soldiered on for a couple of years and started going decades between comebacks, always with some good things, but never quite hitting this height again.

Somewhere in those decades, she started to get hip. Not just quasi-hip but really hip, so much so that she finally reached the Quentin-Tarantino-has-you-in-his-movie-the-producer-from-the-Sopranos-is-on-the-phone-you’re-in-regular-rotation-on-Little-Steven’s-Underground-Garage-and-Greil-Marcus-is-calling-you “shockingly avant garde” stage, which is to say she had finally grabbed all the hipness and cultural currency our present world has to offer.

Which is great. On top of everything else, she always seemed like the sort of decent stick who deserved it and double for all the crap she undoubtedly had to put up with from what she nicely termed her “musical peers.”

Very few of those peers had the guts to truly go their own way when “being hip” was nowhere in sight. And these days, you don’t need to scour record shows or out-of-the-way vinyl bins in Florida beach towns to find a copy of Nancy. Right now you can go on Amazon and pick it up for a mere thirty bucks. Wait a week and maybe it will be a little more or a little less, but in any case, it will have a bunch of beautiful bonus tracks, which, unlike the bonus tracks on nearly every other reissue in existence, actually deepen and enhance the original concept and end with this, which we can all ponder as our overlords seek the newest excuse to send the next batch of twenty-year-olds into the next meat-grinder with the same old promise to make it come right this time.

So thanks, Nancy. Thanks, on the hundredth anniversary of your legendary dad’s birth, for staying true to something other than a moment of turbulence and helping see me and ever how many others through the long decades of increasingly discomforting numbness that have descended upon us ever since.

 

WHAT’S MISSING (Segue of the Day: 3/20/15)

My internet speed issues have finally become sufficiently annoying/debilitating that I’m actually having to go into the office this week. (Go ahead, tell me civilization is still standing. I’ll believe you. I promise.)

One result is more radio than usual and last night on the way home I caught what I take to be Miranda Lambert’s latest, which on the radio, was, like a lot of her stuff, darn catchy and kinda’ edgy and definitely unique. I mean, I could tell it was her, which, these days is enough to make a singer practically a genius all by itself.

Even as I was smiling at rhymes like Tony Lloma and Oklahoma, though, I knew (like I always know when I’m listening to even the best modern country music) that something was missing.

What and why? These are questions I’m constantly asking myself when I’m listening to modern radio…and not just about country.

But country’s got a unique tradition. Unlike rock and roll or jazz it’s never been broadly amorphous. Unlike blues or gospel it’s always been a truly popular (as opposed to populist) music, it’s definitive practitioners able to reach far larger audiences than Muddy Waters or Marion Williams or the Blackwood Brothers. And, unlike Tin Pan Alley or hip-hop,  it’s never been truly hidebound (much as the suits would have preferred it, one time and another).

All that being said, some time in the last ten years or so, a switch has been flipped at country radio. Yes, the generations changed. The great women of the eighties and nineties turned forty. The great men turned fifty…then sixty. Country’s sell-by date for charting hits comes a little later, but it comes.

And, in the past, stretching back to Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, somebody always stepped in. Styles changed, expanded. New visions were incorporated.

The core remained. A music that could accommodate Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold, Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson, George Strait and Patty Loveless, remained nonetheless grounded in some certain something.

To be honest, until last night, I always knew it when I heard it, but I never even thought about whether it might have a name. All that really happened at first was that Miranda’s song put me in a country mood (or, at least, more of a country mood, since my re-acquisition of Rhino’s old Buck Owens’ box–lost in the great CD sell-off of 2002–had me leaning that direction anyway). So I went to Moe Bandy and Tanya Tucker and Mel Tillis and I had pulled Charlie Rich and Don Gibson, when Mel’s “Your Body Is An Outlaw” got me to wondering, yet again, whether his daughter Pam was singing the backup part because it came out in 1980 or ’81 and she didn’t get famous herself for another decade but, once she did, I started thinking it sure sounded like her, and yeah, it’s kind of weird to be singing a duet with your daughter on a song like that, but then again Jeannie and Royce Kendall were making a career out of it around the same time so it certainly wasn’t unheard of.

So I went to the good old internet, Wikipedia and the like, and came up dry.

Then I went to YouTube, good old YouTube, and some authoritative sounding gentleman was in the comment section of at least two different clips claiming that, yes, Pam had sung back up on this…

And, having that for unofficial confirmation, what I could then safely say was that it sounded even more like her than ever…and I was sure in the mood for some Pam Tillis.

So I went to pull her epochal Put Yourself In My Place, one of the greatest albums ever made and the one that made her a star (and which I wrote about here). While I was at it, I saw Rhinestoned, a CD Tillis released on her own label back in 2007 and which I bought a discarded dee-jay copy of at the late, lamented Vinyl Fever before it would have been played on the radio.

You know, if it had been played on the radio.

Which is wasn’t. Because Pam was fifty by then. If you’re fifty and you’re a woman and you’re not Dolly Parton, you don’t get played on the radio.

You want to make a CD, you better go ahead and start your own label.

The thing is, I’ve had Rhinestoned for seven-eight years now and I had listened to it once and thought it was okay, nothing special, like what you might expect from a favorite who had veered a little pop when she was trying to hang on in the mid-to-late nineties and now was down to releasing stuff on her own label.

Still, I thought seven-eight years was long enough. I should probably give it another try.

And, lo and behold, there was another great Pam Tillis album that had been sitting on my self all those years, waiting for me to get my head right so I could finally hear it. (Did I mention that 2007-8 were rugged years? Dad died, eyes deteriorating with a good chance the deterioration wouldn’t stop, savings gone, writer’s block like I never had before or since. Like that.)

And while I was listening to this particular record (and the particular cut linked below) I realized what has gone missing from the core of country music that gets played on the radio…and most of that which doesn’t.

Because, I realized that, in order to be a really great country singer, you have to contain within yourself the essence of the word Ralph Stanley used to describe Patty Loveless when she was at the height of her fame and which has gone entirely missing from modern country radio. The quality that even Miranda Lambert (Loveless’ own favorite modern) doesn’t quite possess.

Lonesome.

Okay, now I’m off to work.

Don Gibson and Charlie Rich in tow.

CONTINUING WITH THE INTRODUCTIONS: GREAT RECORDS I CANNOT POSSIBLY LISTEN TO CASUALLY

…and the reasons why.

“Psycho” Elvis Costello (1979)…too close to actually being inside the mind of a psychopath. Costello made many great sides before this, only a handful since. Coincidence? Probably not. (No link available that I could find.)

“I Miss You” (Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes) (1972)…too close to being in somebody else’s life where I don’t belong, like overhearing a friend’s conversation and knowing that, for better or worse, you’ll never feel the same about them again.

“I Feel Like Going Home” (Charlie Rich–Acoustic Version) (1973)…too close to the bone of Calvinist fatalism for anyone who believes in the resurrection to come away unscarred.

“Remember (Walkin’ In the Sand)” The Shangri-Las (1964)….for reasons I discussed at great length, here and here.

“Powerderfinger” Neil Young and Crazy Horse (1979)…too close to the deepest nightmares of a culture that has always prized violence a little too highly.

“Six White Horses” Waylon Jennings (1969)…too constant a reminder that Viet Nam is a wound that has never healed and never will.

“Angel From Montgomery” Tanya Tucker (1977)…too keen a reminder of certain older women I knew in youth who had nothing left, including hope, and, therefore–unlike the fine versions by composer John Prine and all-timer Bonnie Raitt–too much like a black hole in the sun. (No link to the studio version. There’s a terrific live version here, but I don’t find it scarifying.)